From my journal dated May 5, 2002:
I went to a “Mother’s Group” meeting last night. There were women there who had lost children from 1 year to 20 years ago. Don’t know if it was the best “fit” for me – I’m not one that likes to be facilitated. “How did that make you feel?” “What do you think that means to you?” Questions like that. I’m sure they really help some people, but they just irritate me.
It wasn’t a particularly encouraging time for me, hearing women who are further “down the road” than I am and are still struggling where I am now. Shouldn’t they be better by now? When I was asked to introduce myself and tell a little bit about Jason, one gal said (when I was finished), “Oh, you’re just a baby.” I have to admit I was a little put off by that comment. At the end, the leader said, “Becky, this is reality here tonight.”
I don’t want this reality.
As I read that entry now, I realize what a huge misconception I had of how long and how hard this journey through grief would be following the death of a child. I figured I “should” be better by the end of a year. I couldn’t understand how one gal who was experiencing the first anniversary of her daughter’s death would say similar things to what I was feeling two months after Jason’s death. Silly, naive me.
It’s a proven fact that most bereaved parents have an even harder second year (the term “year” used in this entry is a generalized period of time, not an absolute) than the first. The numbness has worn off, leaving everything raw. The subconscious anticipation of your child’s return, footsteps on the stairway or sound of the car driving up the driveway, is gone. The second year is when the reality of your child’s death really sinks into every part of your life, being and existence…and the hard work of learning to live without your child really begins.
It may seem strange to think that it takes a year to recognize the reality that your child has died. We are initially given the grace of numbness. Our mind, spirit and emotions allow us to take in and deal with things little by little. If we had to handle everything at once, I don’t honestly know how we would survive. A bereaved parent’s emotions are all over the place the first year – denial, anger, hurt, pain – and he or she is dealing with many more issues – exhaustion, lack of sleep, lack of concentration, apathy, physical problems, loneliness, lack of support…just to name a few. Any way you look at it, it’s a lot to handle on top of the death of a precious child.
Just as it’s important to recognize that the second year following the death of a child can be even more difficult than the first, it’s important to recognize that it can take up to ten years or more to really integrate the death of a child into the fabric of your life. Notice I say “integrate” and not “get over.” You never “get over” the death of a child. It changes you forever and is always with you.
In a book edited by Theresa A. Rando, Parental Loss of a Child, researcher William C. Fish gives results of a study done on bereaved parents concerning length of bereavement: “Common sense says that intensity of grief will decline steadily over time [as compared to a wound]…the loss of a child is more like dismemberment…grief in mothers is more intense after 2 years than it was before…after 5 years, intensity levels diminish to levels only slightly below those of the first 2 years.”
I’m not saying that a bereaved parent doesn’t move forward on his or her journey through grief, but grief can’t be rushed. It takes as long as it takes. It’s a very hard thing to do to learn to live without your child.
It’s no mistake that it’s commonly called “grief work.” It’s work, hard work…harder work than anyone could ever imagine. I had no idea that it would take this long or be this hard. It initially consumes nearly all of your focus and energy, when it seems there is already too little of either. It’s almost like a full-time job! It affects you physically, emotionally, spiritually; it affects everything! I felt like I was in a survival mode, trying to get through one moment, one hour, one day at a time. I had to concentrate on one breath at a time, one step at a time.
I have likened the impact of death of a child on a person to a crystal vase being hit by a wrecking ball, hitting it so hard that the pieces are infinitesimally small and strewn to the four corners. Working to reconcile yourself to the death of your child and integrating that loss into the fabric of your life is a process of finding those pieces – and maybe some new pieces – is like trying to put that vase back together. It takes a lot of work and a long time…and it never looks the same as the original. You may never find some pieces. That’s why a bereaved parent is not the same person he or she used to be. Grief changes them.
Besides dealing with the death of a child, bereaved parents face and deal with many, many more difficult issues and challenges (just a few listed below, not a comprehensive list) – not only in the first year, but also subsequent years:
- Secondary losses – loss of family continuity, loss of support/companionship, loss of identity, loss of relationships, loss of faith, loss of finances, loss of things familiar, loss of a feeling of “home” or belonging, loss of focus/concentration, loss of future represented by your child…the list could go on and on.
- Secondary wounds – being avoided, lack of support, “helpful” comments that communicate criticism (In her book When People Grieve, Paula D’Arcy says, “Criticism is always wounding; with grieving, it has twice the sting.”), lack of understanding and empathy, not acknowledging the enormity of the loss and length of grief process, feeling like their child is forgotten…once again, the list could go on and on.
- Lack of understanding – In our society, there is extensive teaching on many things – major illness, how to recognize a heart attack, how to set a broken bone, how to change a tire, etc. There is very little education for a bereaved parent on what to expect or for those around a bereaved parent on how to help. It usually falls to the bereaved parent to research in order to figure out parental grief and to teach those around them. Sometimes it seems like there is an urgency by other people for the bereaved parent to go back to being “normal” (even though there is no such thing any more) and for the discomfort of grief to go away. Within Christian circles, there is an undercurrent attitude that the bereaved should allow God to heal him or her as quickly as possible from the pain of losing a child. If the bereaved doesn’t heal quickly enough, it is a perceived lack of faith or lack of trust in the goodness of God.
- Having to “go underground” or hide deep grief in order to make people around them feel comfortable. In their book The Grief Recovery Handbook, J. James and R. Friedman (in a chapter entitled “Academy Award Recovery”) state , “In a relatively short time, the griever discovers that he or she must indeed ‘act recovered’ in order to be treated in an acceptable manner.” In order to not be left alone and for people to want to be around you, the griever has to take steps to only show an acceptable amount of grief so people are not uncomfortable. In our society, people who appear “strong” or who don’t bring attention to their grief or quickly recover from adversity are admired. Bereaved parents have an expectation put on them that they should recover quickly. If they don’t, there is a tendency to want to “help” a bereaved parent move on down the road. It’s usually not necessarily for their benefit, but rather so that people around will be more comfortable.
I think everyone would acknowledge that the death of a child is the greatest loss any parent could endure. We all have within us misconceptions and “shoulds” that need to be checked at the door, though, when it comes to bereaved parents and the journey of grief they have to walk. You don’t know unless you’ve been there…and, even then, every loss and griever is unique. If we can grasp the concept that it’s a long journey and takes a lot of work along the way, maybe we can extend some grace to ourselves as grievers or to those around us who may grieve.
Fish, William C. Parental Loss of a Child, ed. Therese A. Rando. Champaign: Research Press Company, 1986.
D’Arcy, Paula. When People Grieve: The Power of Love in the Midst of Pain. New York: Crossroads Publishing Co., 1990.
James, J. and R. Friedman. The Grief Recovery Handbook. New York: Harper Collins, 2009.